Inside Slant

Besides who they'll be taking in the draft, one of the biggest unsettled issues for the Jaguars is how to go about reducing the $28.6 million in salary cap that is currently tied up in four players -- quarterback Mark Brunell ($8.75 million), defensive end Tony Brackens ($8.26 million), wide receiver Jimmy Smith ($6.45 million) and tight end Kyle Brady ($5.17 million).

The team is currently in sensitive negotiations with the agents for Brunell, Brackens and Brady on different ways to go about it, but little progress has been reported. Brady, along with safety Donovin Darius, skipped last week's voluntary mini-camp because he's upset that the Jaguars have asked him to take what is believed to be a significant pay cut from his $2.95 million salary.

"I don't think it would be in the best interests for me to be on the field until we have an equitable contract for everyone involved," Brady said.

As insurance for Brady's possible release, the Jaguars went out and signed former New York Jets first-round pick Johnnie Mitchell, who was out of the NFL last season and hasn't caught a pass in a regular-season game since 1996. Mitchell got a one-year contract for the minimum $530,000 salary and took part in most of the team's mini-camp.

"Mitchell did a nice job, especially coming in off the street like he did," said coach Jack Del Rio. "He's had experience in this offense and he's picked it up fairly well."

The dilemma for the Jaguars is Mitchell, a teammate of Brady's with the Jets in 1995, represents a substantial downgrade. He's been out of football since the New Orleans Saints released him last summer and walked out on the Miami Dolphins in 1996 and the New York Jets in 1999.

Brady, on the other hand, is one of the team's most consistently productive players. He was a Pro Bowl alternate last season, has put up decent numbers as a receiver and was the Jaguars' best blocker in 2002 on a mediocre offensive line.

However, the team is looking for ways to reduce its salary cap after investing over $12 million in signing bonus money for free-agent acquisitions Hugh Douglas, Mike Peterson, Marc Edwards, Keith Mitchell, Jermaine Lewis and Donald Hayes.

The Jaguars are discussing a possible two-year extension with Brunell's agent as a way of reducing what is really a cap-friendly contract, at least given his status as the franchise quarterback. Brackens, who is coming off microfracture surgery on his left knee, remains a medical question mark until he gets on the field in training camp in July. It's possible the Jaguars may release their all-time sack leader to save $5.5 million on their salary cap, especially with Douglas playing his same position, but Brackens says he's willing to restructure his deal to remain with the team.

"I could back up Hugh (Douglas), play left end or switch in and out," said Brackens. "They're doing their part (in the negotiations) and we're doing our part. If we can meet, then that's fine."

There's no big hurry for the Jaguars to get anything done soon with Brackens or Brunell, but it may be a different story with Brady. The team may want those negotiations to be resolved one way or another before the draft because it could impact whether they select a tight end. The only options besides Mitchell are second-year pro Chris Luzar and Joe Zelenka, who is primarily the long snapper.

Brady would prefer to stay in Jacksonville and possibly at a lower salary, but not at the reduced rate that the Jaguars are seeking. To help reach a compromise, Brady has brought in former team executive Michael Huyghue, now an agent, to negotiate a deal to try and keep him in Jacksonville.

Darius is still upset over being assigned the franchise tag, which allows him to make the top-five average salary ($3 million) of NFL safeties this season, but he wanted either a long-term deal or the chance to become an unrestricted free agent.

Del Rio tried to downplay the absence of Brady and Darius at mini-camp, saying: "It's not totally unexpected. Guys have to do what they have to do this time of year. To me, getting angry doesn't resolve things any sooner. So my focus in on the guys that are here."

It's a given that both Brady and Brackens won't be with the Jaguars in 2003 unless they're willing to reduce those cap numbers. The Jaguars have a valid insurance policy for releasing Brackens in Douglas, but that's not the case if they cut Brady after June 1, which would save $3 million against the cap and require the Jaguars to take a $1.1 million cap hit next year.

The Jaguars are serious about doing a better job of managing their salary cap. But in some instances, as with Brady, the price they pay could be losing a quality player and replacing him with a much lesser talent.

DRAFT STRATEGY -- With the No. 8 overall pick, the Jaguars should have lots of options to trade up or down because players they covet at wide receiver or cornerback will likely go sooner, yet their draft position is high enough to warrant other clubs offering extra picks that could be just as valuable.

Coach Jack Del Rio has created a pre-draft buzz by attending workouts for quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and Carson Palmer. But that could just as easily be a ploy to disguise their intentions or invite teams to trade up with the Jaguars if Leftwich is still on the board. The Jaguars desperately need a wide receiver, but Michigan State's Charles Rogers is expected to be gone by the second or third pick and Miami's Andre Johnson probably won't last beyond Arizona at No. 6. Fortunately, this is a receiver-rich draft and they might be able to get an impact player in the second round if things break right.

A shutdown corner would be a welcome addition, but Kansas State's Terence Newman will be gone and it's not known if the Jaguars regard Washington State's Marcus Trufant as worthy of that eighth pick.

If the above options don't pan out, the Jaguars might consider trading down or taking Utah offensive tackle Jordan Gross to replenish a depleted offensive line. Gross would provide competition for Mike Pearson, the team's second-round pick last year and still a work in progress.

TEAM NEEDS: Wide receiver, offensive line, cornerback, running back, linebacker. WR -- At 34, Jimmy Smith is on the downside of his career and his performance diminished last season without Keenan McCardell on the opposite side. The only time the Jaguars took a receiver in the first round (2000) proved to be the biggest mistake in their draft history as R. Jay Soward was suspended twice for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy and is out of the league. The Jaguars signed free agent Donald Hayes, though he floundered last year in New England. They re-signed Kevin Lockett, but he's no better than a third receiver. It'll be a surprise if the Jaguars wait beyond the second round to get a receiver.

OL -- Free agency hit the Jaguars hardest with this unit. They lost starting center John Wade, starting tackle Zach Wiegert and valuable backup Todd Fordham. The Jaguars still have four starters in Brad Meester, Chris Naeole, Maurice Williams and Pearson, but there's little depth and a starter is needed at center or guard, depending on where Meester plays next season. Expect the Jaguars to use at least two of their seven picks to fill those gaps.

CB -- From his first day on the job, coach Jack Del Rio has put a priority on increasing team speed on defense. He'd like to get a shutdown corner, but that wasn't available in free agency. Cornerback Fernando Bryant is a free agent after next season and Jason Craft was just average in his first season as a full-time starter in 2002. The Jaguars may want a versatile defensive back that could play both cornerback and safety, just in case things work out to trade disgruntled safety Donovin Darius. One player that may fit the bill is Bethune-Cookman's Rashean Mathis, a Jacksonville native who may still be available in the second round (39th overall pick).

RB -- The departure of Stacey Mack to the Houston Texans leaves a gaping hole behind Fred Taylor, who has a history of muscle-related injuries. Elvis Joseph is too small to withstand a lot of carries if he had to fill an occasional starting role. It's imperative that the Jaguars find a suitable replacement for Mack, a 235-pound load who was practically an automatic touchdown in goal-line situations.

LB -- Just because the Jaguars signed free agents Mike Peterson and Keith Mitchell doesn't mean that they're not looking for further upgrades. Del Rio thinks he has versatile outside linebackers that can play either side, but the middle is still a potential trouble spot unless T.J. Slaughter can make the transition back from the outside.

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